Traveling between two worlds

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Prof. Frank-Martin Belz (left) conducts research on sustainable development in c
Prof. Frank-Martin Belz (left) conducts research on sustainable development in countries of the Global South. Image: Kats David

Prof. Frank-Martin Belz promotes sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship in developing countries. He and his team educate outstanding students to contribute to sustainable development in such countries as Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, India and Peru.

His day starts at five o’clock in the morning. That’s when Frank-Martin Belz gets up, breathes in the fresh morning air and practices yoga. Later in the day he will swim or go for a run. The economic scientist has competed in the Hawaii Ironman - considered the world’s toughest triathlon. The experience inspired his book "Challenge Ironman: In the Search of Meaning". Such exertions take a lot of persistence and discipline. Frank-Martin Belz (56) demonstrates this in his professional life, too. "My day is highly structured so that I can dedicate myself to my work with all of my senses and the full necessary commitment," he says.

Frank-Martin Belz is always in motion. He prefers not to stand still. But he is also very willing to leave his comfort zone. "I’m open to new challenges and changes," says the Professor for Corporate Sustainability. He has made several changes in direction over his career. Just two years ago he established the TUM SEED Center, dedicated to research and teaching on "Sustainable Energies, Entrepreneurship and Development in the Global South" - SEED for short. A constant has always been sustainability. "It’s what drives me and is the underlying idea in all of my research activities," says Belz. In his doctoral and habilitation theses he investigated the development and marketing of sustainable innovations such as mobility services, passive houses, organic foods and fair trade products. In 2003 he was appointed to a professorship at TUM, where he specializes in corporate sustainability.

He became increasingly aware, however, that global corporations are driven primarily by capital market performance and are less interested in ecological and social objectives. "Sustainability is often little more than a public relations exercise where the real goal is to boost profits," says Belz. 2010 was the turning point for him that brought him back to the roots in his economic thinking. TUM gave him the creative freedom to take this step: "I was always much less interested in short-term business cycles than in large societal transformations: We need to think in historical terms if we really want to build a sustainable economy - for real progress in combating climate change and benefitting people. This leaves no room for short-term thinking."

During his last sabbatical he realized that he wants to dedicate his energy to economic processes that would directly benefit people - especially those living in the Global South. 1.3 billion people have to live on less than $1.90 a day and are thus below the international poverty line - most of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. A billion people have no access to electricity. "Without electricity, however, education is practically impossible because students cannot study in the evening. It is also impossible to pump water to the surface from very deep in the ground to supply the villages. Nor can the people establish microenterprises to earn a living."

This led to the idea for the TUM SEED Center. A project that could have a big impact: it will support students and young enterprises around the world in their efforts to promote sustainable development. Over a 10-year period, it will fund exciting initiatives in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and other countries in the area of sustainable energies and entrepreneurship. At the same time, master’s programs in countries in the Global South and in Germany will be established to share knowledge through university teaching in those countries. Students educated in the university will try out their own business models, and will be provided with business models and storytelling for their own startups. The SEED Center will be supported in these activities by an interdisciplinary team at TUM that also includes TUMentrepreneurship and UnternehmerTUM, the center for startups and innovation at TUM.

In addition, "living labs" will be created in eight countries in the Global South: rural villages where sustainable energy systems will be set up for long-term use. This will enable the village community to power a mill, irrigate fields with water pumps or provide small enterprises such as a kiosk or sewing shop with electricity. Researchers at TUM will evaluate the economic, ecological and social impacts. The market for renewable energies in rural regions of developing countries is estimated at $200 billion. "The goal is to unearth this treasure even if it is challenging from a business standpoint," says Frank-Martin Belz.

In the fall of 2021 the TUM SEED Center finally managed to conduct a big kickoff meeting after it was postponed a year earlier due to the pandemic. All of the participants got together in Munich. "I was delighted to see all of these committed young people at a single location," says Prof. Belz. "Then I knew: The 180-degree turn in my career had paid off." He also plans to maintain his forward momentum in the future. He sees himself as a traveler between two worlds - Europe, where he is at home, and the countries of the Global South, where he is a guest. He knows that he has been very fortunate in his life and that his career as a researcher has been a huge privilege. Consequently, he is now trying to give a little back to society.